Speaking of which, BU has advanced to its 14th championship game in 15 years in the annual battle for Boston bragging rights. Only a dramatic Harvard comeback over BC avoided another Battle for Comm Ave.
The league pecking order is starting to take form now. It’s always dangerous to try handicapping such a race, but after driving a flaming automobile, nothing much scares this writer anymore. Nothing much, that is, other than a FleetCenter hot dog.
And so, knowing that this is bound to annoy those fans who may be overly optimistic about their team’s chances, let’s check out the race.
No. 3 Boston University, No. 4 New Hampshire and No. 8 Boston College should finish 1-2-3, in some order. BU and UNH, both with two games in hand over the Eagles, are the heavy favorites to take the top two spots.
Of the remaining teams fighting for home ice, Maine and Northeastern have by far the best chances. Although the Huskies hold a four-point lead over the Black Bears and a game in hand to boot, the remaining Northeastern schedule is as tough as it gets, while Maine has a much easier time of it. The three head-to-head tilts approaching between these two teams, including one this week, should settle it.
Although UMass-Lowell and Providence might have an outside chance at moving up, both will face the league’s three top-ten teams in six of their last nine contests.
Meanwhile, Merrimack and UMass-Amherst appear likely to duke it out for the final playoff spot. The Warriors have a big advantage in this battle. Although their three-point advantage may be negated by the two games in hand the Minutemen hold, the remaining schedule favors Merrimack greatly. The Warriors actually stand a better chance of moving up than moving down.
Of course, the age-old caveat remains: you never know what’s going to happen until you play the games.
This week’s Hockey East KOHO Players of the Week are Tom Poti, the BU defenseman who now has five goals and three assists in his last four games, and Tim Lovell, whose 3-3–6 weekend led UMass-Amherst to its first two Hockey East wins.
The Rookie of the Week is UNH’s Matt Swain, who scored two goals and added an assist against Boston College for his first collegiate points. Last week’s record in picks: 2-7 (the curse of the Slob-mobile)
Season’s record in picks: 95-56, .629
The Beanpot: Championship Game No. 3 Boston University (18-4-2, 10-3-2 HEA) vs. Harvard (7-9-2, 6-5-1 ECAC)
Monday, 8 p.m., FleetCenter, Boston, MA WABU-TV68
Boston University’s seniors can go down in history as the only class to win four Beanpots if they knock off the underdog Crimson. The Terriers did win four straight from 1970 through 1973, but that was in an era prior to freshman eligibility.
Five years ago, in 1993, they had the same opportunity, but fell to the Ted Drury-led Crimson 4-2. This year, the Drury is on the other foot.
"We couldn’t do it a few years ago," said coach Jack Parker. "It would be nice if Chris Drury, Mike Sylvia, Chris Kelleher, Tom Noble and Jeff Kealty become the only people in Beanpot history to win four.
"Not that we’re thinking about that," he added wryly.
The Terriers put themselves in position for the feat by following up their Friday night 6-3 win over Merrimack with a 4-1 victory over Northeastern in the Beanpot semifinal. Just two weeks earlier, the two teams had split one-goal games in a home-and-home series.
"This easily could have been a one-goal game, too," said Parker after the game. "One of the differences is that we had everybody back and they had two of their best players out, [Scott] Campbell and [Aaron] Toews. When you take those two guys out of their lineup and we got Tommi Degerman back and Albie [O’Connell] much healthier, that’s a pretty big swing."
Northeastern held a 1-0 lead until midway through the second period, when BU took advantage of a Northeastern defensive zone blunder to even the score.
"Once they got their goal and got halfway through the second," said Parker, "they had to be thinking, ‘Hey, we can win this game 1-0, if we play hard defense because we’ve got a great goaltender. It was a good break that we got that goal, because it got us going a little bit and took away that possibility. It’s not going to be 1-0 shutout, boys. You’re going to have to score again. And maybe we will, too."
Three and a half minutes later, the Terriers held a 3-1 lead. Until that point, they had relied on goaltender Michel Larocque’s predictably strong play to keep them close in an evenly-played game .
"You saw two great goaltenders who were working their craft pretty good," said Parker. "We kind of take Larocque for granted, to tell you the truth. ‘Geez, that’s what he’s supposed to do for us.’
"When you run into a guy like Marc [Robitaille], you say to yourself, ‘He’s playing great tonight,’ but he plays great every night, too. And they probably take him for granted.
"But that’s one thing that’s great about Hockey East this year. The league is filled with great goaltending. There’s a lot of low-scoring games in our league. It’s not for lack of shots and it isn’t because of the trap. There are great opportunities and goalies are making big saves."
Parker’s recent Beanpot goaltending rotation would result in Larocque playing in BU’s Friday night match-up against UMass-Lowell and Tom Noble getting the Beanpot final for the second consecutive year.
When Harvard captain Jeremiah McCarthy was asked to recount his favorite Beanpot memory, he said, "We lost two games in my freshman year. We lost two games in my sophomore year. And we lost two games in my junior year. So I guess my favorite Beanpot memory was my first warmup."
Well, guess what? McCarthy has a new highlight.
After falling behind 3-0, the Crimson roared back, tying the game with 25 seconds left before winning it in overtime. The contest marked Harvard’s first game action in 22 days because of exam break.
"We looked like we hadn’t played in 22 days, but we got stronger as the game went along," said coach Ronn Tomassoni. "I have to take my hat off to my guys, because we don’t know the word quit."
Chris Bala, the team’s leading scorer with 17 points in 18 games, scored twice, including a critical shorthanded goal and the game-winner. Reportedly, the scouts are keeping a close eye on the freshman, a posture that BU defensemen would be best to adopt.
(For more on Harvard, see this week’s ECAC Preview.)
PICK: The class of Drury, Kelleher, Noble, Sylvia and Kealty moves into the record books with a convincing 5-2 win.
The Beanpot: Consolation Game
Northeastern (16-9-2, 9-5-2 HEA) vs. No. 8 Boston College (16-8-3, 9-5-2 HEA)
Monday, 5 p.m., FleetCenter, Boston, MA
In the Beanpot semifinal, Boston College suffered a gut-wrenching 5-4 loss in overtime to Harvard. What added insult to injury, though, was the way the Eagles lost it. They held a 3-0 second-period lead and a 3-1 advantage until Harvard’s Chris Bala scored a shorthanded goal with 11 minutes remaining.
They then reestablished a two-goal cushion, holding a 4-2 lead with under six minutes to play. Harvard then scored on two shots from the point, the first one deflected in front by Trevor Allman and the second by Ben Storey with the goalie pulled and 25 seconds left.
"I thought we had a good lid on it," said crestfallen coach Jerry York. "The shorthanded goal hurt us. And at the end, we had just killed a penalty there and we had our five guys back, but we were in disarray when they scored. "In retrospect, we had two or three chances to chip the puck out of the zone. They’d pulled their goaltender and the clock was winding down. It just didn’t seem to get out into the neutral zone. Harvard kept coming and Storey got good wood on it from the point."
Bala then broke hearts on the Heights off a set faceoff play in OT.
"I thought we had this one tonight and we let it slip away," said BC coach Jerry York. "It was a real disheartening loss for our kids and our program. We wanted to win a Beanpot and it’s not going to be this year. It’s a tough pill for us to swallow."
Chris Masters, one of BC’s key defensive players who scored one goal and provided a great setup to Nick Pierandri on another, was injured midway through the game and is probably out until next weekend.
Northeastern succumbed to UNH, 5-2, before also falling to Boston University in the Beanpot semifinal, 4-1. The Huskies are now hurting physically, just as they enter the toughest segment of their schedule. Forward Scott Campbell missed the Beanpot semifinal game due to an ankle injury suffered against UNH.
On the blue line, Aaron Toews also missed the game with a neck injury. Mike Jozefowicz, perhaps NU’s top defenseman, has missed the last eight games following an injury during the Saskatchewan tournament. And David Dupont went down in the first period, leaving a blue line corps that was already playing four freshmen woefully thin.
"I give the kids, [Doug] Carlson, [Matt] Brown, [John] Peterman and [Arik] Engbrecht a lot of credit because they were double-shifted a lot," said coach Bruce Crowder. "Playing a team of BU’s caliber with their type of players, we just got worn down a bit.
"I don’t think anybody would say it’s enough to go out in the first round. Everyone comes here to win this thing, but we’re young. We’ll be back. We’re going to have a lot of fun down the road here. We just have to continue to work at it and get better."
The results, and Crowder’s reaction to them mirror those in the Friday night loss to UNH.
"There are going to be mistakes along the way even though you try to minimize them," he said, "but we played one of the best teams in the country hard for 60 minutes.
"There are little character things that we’re constantly trying to pull out. We’re so young that we’re just going to pull a positive out of this. There’s no use getting down on these guys, for goodness sakes. They’ve been the biggest surprise in hockey this year and we came close to pulling out another surprise."
PICK: Unless a team has a realistic shot at an at-large NCAA berth, tournament consolation games are murder for a coach to get his troops revved up for. BC, currently number 11 in the Pairwise Rankings, does have a shot, while Northeastern’s odds at number 18 are a lot longer.
Add that to Northeastern’s injury woes and this one looks like BC, 4-2.
UMass-Lowell (9-11-3, 6-6-3 HEA, 6th) at No. 3 Boston University (18-4-2, 10-3-2 HEA, T-1st)
UMass-Lowell (9-11-3, 6-6-3 HEA, 6th) at UMass-Amherst (5-16-2, 2-11-1 HEA)
Sunday, 2 p.m., Mullins Center, Amherst, MA AudioNet
Boston University is profiled above.
In its lone game last week following the Tsongas Arena opener, UMass-Lowell fell behind Boston College 3-0, rallied back to the tie it in the second period, but lost 4-3 on a Brian Gionta strike.
"It’s tough to spot a good team like that three goals and then expect to win the game," said coach Tim Whitehead. "We did have a good second period so we were in position to win and it was a pretty good third period, but unfortunately they got a goal on a faceoff and we couldn’t tie it up. The slow start was disappointing, but it was a good sign the way we came back against a good team."
Midseason addition Jeremy Kyte has been hampered by injury of late and missed the BC game. Although eventually he should make a bigger contribution than his three assists in six games to date, the forward is still in the process of assimilating the ins and outs of Division I hockey.
"He’s doing all right," said Whitehead. "It’s been a bit of an adjustment for him coming from junior hockey in midseason. Trying to pick up systems, defensive systems especially, has been tough. Those are the types of things he hasn’t been expected to do in the past."
In facing BU this week, Lowell is faced with the age-old predicament. Do you focus on your opponent’s top gun, in this case Chris Drury, or not? Last year, the River Hawks had a lot of success shadowing Drury in a 3-1 win at Tully Forum.
"We have to be aware of Drury, but we can’t spend a ton of time on him," said Whitehead. "They’re such a well-rounded team. You have to be careful that if you spend too much time worrying about Drury, the rest of the guys will burn you. You have to have a balance there. He’s an outstanding player, but you can’t overdo it.
"You have to respect their defense. They can carry the puck. They can shoot it. They’re good on the power play at the point. So you really have to respect what they’re going to do out there from the point and you have to watch those guys jumping in on the rush late. You just have to really be aware of a five-man offense with them."
Although BU has claimed a share of first place, and Lowell’s other opponent this weekend, UMass-Amherst, sits in last place, Whitehead sees similarities between the two teams.
"They’re actually similar to BU, because their strength is in their defense and goaltending at Amherst," said Whitehead. "They’ve got some young talented forwards like BU, and you’ve got to respect the points getting involved with them as well. They’re not just a one-man show.
"With Amherst, that’s becoming a big rivalry for our two schools, so there’s a bit more involved there as well. They’re playing real good hockey now, so they’re a team that we have to be very aware of."
UMass-Amherst had the weekend that coach Joe Mallen has been waiting for, defeating Providence 3-1 and stomping Merrimack 6-2. For a team that had only one win, and that over Air Force, and two ties in the 14 games dating back to Nov. 15, it could not have come at a more welcome time.
"It was a breakthrough weekend," said Mallen. "We’ve been so close so many nights, it doesn’t surprise me. We had a couple of our seniors step up and play the way they’re capable of playing, starting with Timmy Lovell. Tommy O’Connor had five assists on the weekend, Mike Gaffney really stepped it up and had a goal and Brian Regan played real good back-to-back games."
Ironically, the two wins and big senior contributions came after senior captain Brad Norton left the team to turn pro.
"It was just a parting of the ways," said Mallen. "We wish him the best of luck. He had an opportunity and he chose to take it.
"But I think that Mike Gaffney and Tom O’Connor took it as a positive, that it would be an opportunity for them to shine a little more. And Tim Lovell the same way. Those guys really responded."
Two senior role-players, Dan Juden and Dean Campanale, and sophomore Nathan Sell also stepped up to give the Minutemen goal scoring from unexpected sources.
"For us to be able to get scoring from different people, which is something we’ve been waiting for all year long, made a big difference," said Mallen. "It’s been a lack of goal scoring all year long that has hurt us.
"[In the Merrimack game], it was, to be honest, so rare for us to have a five-goal lead in a Hockey East game. It was a unique situation for us, but it came about because Juden had two, Campanale had one and Gaffney had one."
Although the Minutemen are now in striking range in their quest for the final playoff berth, they will have a tough time getting over the top because of their remaining schedule. Six of their 10 games are against the BU, UNH and BC top-ten troika and three more are against a Maine squad much better than its 10-11-3 record.
"That’s a pretty tough schedule, but, to be honest, that’s Hockey East," said Mallen. "There’s not much we can do about it. We have to play each of those teams three times. It’s better at least to be playing these games after having some success in the league."
The Minutemen begin the stretch against perhaps the most intimidating team of them all, UNH. They then host UMass-Lowell in their one game that, on paper, looks most win-able.
"If we play a team game, and play like we did this past weekend, we can play with anybody," said Mallen.
PICKS: UMass-Lowell gains a split on the weekend, losing 4-3 to BU, but completing a sweep of the season’s series with UMass-Amherst, 4-2.
UMass-Amherst (5-16-2, 2-11-1 HEA) at No. 4 New Hampshire (18-5-1, 10-4-1 HEA, 3rd)
Friday, 7 p.m., Whittemore Center, Durham, NH
New Hampshire almost pulled off the trifecta last week. The Wildcats took no prisoners in a 9-3 victory over Boston College and defeated Northeastern 5-2 to begin the weekend, but fell short against Maine, 3-1.
Against Northeastern, UNH used its killer penalty-killers to prime advantage, scoring two shorthanded goals in the first period to seize control.
The Wildcats hold the top mark in Hockey East for overall success on the PK (89.6 percent) and, even after allowing a Maine power-play goal on Sunday, still have as many shorthanded goals as they have allowed their opponents on the man advantage.
"There’s no doubt that we’re a threat on it, but we’re more concerned with killing the penalty, to be honest," said coach Richard Umile. "They do it so well. They know when to jump. We have some real clever players out there. That’s why we get the goals and are a scoring threat.
"They’ll do it when they have the opportunity to, and they know when to do it. But we’re primarily trying to kill the penalty, not score goals."
Derek Bekar’s fifth shorthanded goal of the season put him atop that category in national statistics.
"You want to kill the penalty," he said, "and if you’re scoring, then it means that they’re not and that means that you’re killing the penalty.
"It starts right back with the goalie and the ‘D’. We’re all on the same wavelength. The defensemen are stripping their forwards; they’re on them; they’re banging and getting it up to us. The [other team’s] defense isn’t ready sometimes and so we’re able to find some offensive opportunities."
With Northeastern’s goaltender pulled near the close of the 5-2 win, Bekar turned down an open net to instead feed Jason Krog for a hat trick.
"They don’t care about personal stats," said Umile. "They just want to win."
The trifecta attempt did fall short, however, when Maine’s strong defense corralled a Wildcat team playing its third game in six days.
"We had the opportunity to win three big ones," said Umile after the game. "It’s a missed opportunity on our part to have a great week and go on top, but I told the players it’s not the end of the world to win two out of three.
"We just hoped that we could get through today. Give credit to them. It was a hard-earned win on their part. Their team defense in the second and third period was just sitting back and picking us up. They played solid D, tried to slow us down, and obviously were successful."
UMass-Amherst is profiled above.
PICK: After a one-game respite, the Wildcats go back to taking no prisoners, 6-2.
Providence College (12-11-2, 6-8-1 HEA, 7th) at No. 8 Boston College (16-8-3, 10-5-2 HEA, T-1st)
Providence College (12-11-2, 6-8-1 HEA, 7th) at Merrimack (9-16-1, 4-12-0 HEA, 8th)
Friday, 7 p.m., Conte Forum, Chestnut Hill, MA FOXNE
Sunday, 7 p.m., Volpe Complex, North Andover, MA
Boston College is profiled above.
Providence’s 0-6-2 tailspin worsened last week with a 3-1 loss to UMass-Amherst and a 6-3 defeat by Brown in the Mayor’s Cup.
"I don’t know how you totally dominate a team for sixty minutes and lose 6-3," said frustrated coach Paul Pooley after the Brown loss. "Territorially, it was unbelievable. Hey, give them credit for winning an ugly game, even though we had tons of chances."
The game turned on two critical goals. Boyd Ballard surrendered one on a shot from outside the blue line, shades of Dan Dennis against BU last year. Then, after minutes of sustained Friar pressure in the offensive zone, a mishandled puck at the point led to a Brown breakaway goal and, effectively, the game.
"That’s what happens when you start pressing," said Pooley. "We came ready to play for 60 minutes and we should have won the game, but we didn’t. I thought that was a great game that we played. We outworked them and did some great things. I think we can use this as a springboard."
After an 0-for-26 power-play drought spanning seven games, the Friar man-advantage connected not once, but twice.
This week, PC first takes on a talented BC team that has to be licking its wounds after a stunning overtime loss to Harvard in the Beanpot semifinal.
"We’ve got to play tight ‘D’ and check, check, check, check, check and just keep working," said Pooley. "We’ve got to check and score on our opportunities."
The Friars then travel to Merrimack, for a game important in the race for the 6-7-8 playoff spots.
"We’re just a struggling team that needs something positive to happen," said Pooley.
Merrimack opened last week with a 6-3 loss to No. 3 Boston University, a game dominated by Poti (two goals, two assists) and Drury (one goal, two assists).
"I thought we played pretty well, but they’re pretty talented," said coach Ron Anderson. "We made some mental mistakes and they just capitalized."
Nobody likes to lose, but when it’s at the hands of BU, you’ve got a lot of company. Getting embarrassed, 6-2, at home by UMass-Amherst, however, is another story. A win would have all but clinched a playoff spot for Merrimack and would have dropped the odds against a seventh or even sixth place finish. The blowout rankled many fans and certainly ranks among the most disappointing Warrior losses in a long time.
"They’re all disappointing, but it’s very hard to beat any team three times in a year," said Anderson. "[The Minutemen are] coming on. They’ve been in a lot of close games this year that have just gotten away from them, including the two against us before. We fully expected it to be a tough fight. Early on, we had our chances and didn’t capitalize. They got theirs and they did."
In the latter stretches of the game, Anderson sat his top guns, though not for disciplinary or motivational reasons.
"One of the things we’ve trying to do is play to our strength, which is our veterans, and develop our young guys as well," he said. "We’re playing the best players we have when the game is on the line. But when a game gets out of reach, you’ve got to give the rest of your players some time if you can. When the game was over, when it was 6-2 or 6-1, we wanted to get some other guys some playing time.
"Plus, I’ve been using those other guys a lot. And they’ll have some off-nights as you wear them out a little bit, too."
Two silver linings could be found among the thunderclouds. First, on a team top-heavy in its offensive talent, third-line freshman Joe Gray popped in a goal, his second of the season, against BU.
"Joe has been playing a lot lately and he’s been playing well," said Anderson. "He just hasn’t made much of an offensive contribution. It’s good to see him get one and help us out there. I’m sure it’ll boost his confidence as well."
Additionally, backup goaltenders Tom Welby and Tim Thompson each appeared in short relief stints and neither allowed a goal.
"They both came in and did a good job for us," said Anderson. "Both nights we got them a little bit of experience. It was good to get them some playing time."
This week, the Warriors host Providence, another team that has been struggling of late, and is one spot ahead of them in the standings.
"Every game is important," said Anderson. "We’re certainly in a battle with UMass and Providence and Lowell to see who’s going to get themselves solidified for the playoffs. This is one of three games we’re going to play against Providence in the next couple weeks, so it’s an important game for us."
PICKS: Fox New England has had good fortune with its first four broadcasts. The first three included two overtimes and a regulation one-goal game. Even last week’s 9-3 UNH-BC blowout was a 3-1 game going into the third, at which point the voyeurs in the audience clicked over to the State of the Union address, and not because they were interested in the budget deficit.
With PC in a tailspin and BC raring to atone for its Beanpot defeat, this one could get ugly.
Look for a Fox-friendly evenly-played game with BC taking a 5-3 win by capitalizing more on its chances.
The Friars then top Merrimack, 5-4.
Northeastern (16-9-2, 9-6-2 HEA, 4th) at Maine (10-11-3, 7-9-2 HEA, 5th)
Thursday, 7 p.m., Alfond Arena, Orono, ME
Northeastern is profiled above.
Maine completed a six-game stretch against BC, New Hampshire (three games) and Boston University (two games) with a 3-1 victory over UNH. In doing so, it avoided a five-game losing streak, which would have been its longest since the 1985-86 season.
"I’m really pleased for our players," said coach Shawn Walsh. "We had played the toughest schedule in the country and we were playing the number one [Ratings Percentage Index] team. We’re hanging around now and we’re getting better."
Alfie Michaud’s early-season inconsistency seems to be behind him. In the six games against ranked opponents, he has posted a 2.58 goals-against average and a .907 save percentage.
The team defense has also been markedly improved.
"We’re defensively more sound than we were earlier in the year," said Walsh. "We’ve dramatically turned that around. When you look back at it, how many unbelievable saves did Alfie make? I count one. I bet Sean [Matile] made three or four."
At the beginning of the season, the upcoming home stretch looked like easy pickings with only Northeastern, UMass-Amherst and Nebraska-Omaha remaining. Go straight to eight wins, do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars.
Now, however, UMass-Amherst is coming off two wins and Northeastern has been the blue-collar success story of the league.
"God, this league is so tough," said Walsh, with a shake of the head.
The strategies that worked successfully against UNH will have to be tailored for Northeastern.
"They’re probably as different as any two teams in our league," said Walsh. "Every time UNH gets an odd-man rush, they make a play. So obviously, you don’t give them odd-man rushes. And they like to attack through the middle of the ice.
"So we wanted to make sure that we took away the middle and limited their odd-man rushes. I don’t think they got a two-on-one all night. [Mark] Mowers got a semi-breakaway on the power play, but that was a bang-bang pass.
"Northeastern plays a different style. They certainly aren’t blessed with the offensive individual skill guys that New Hampshire has, but they’re working hard as a team. They’re kind of a hard-working, grind-it-out team."
With Northeastern playing four freshmen and one sophomore defenseman even before its recent spate of injuries, teams could be expected to try to take advantage of that inexperience. Walsh, however, discounts that emphasis.
"They’re young, but they’re playing well," he said. "They’re right there among the league leaders in team defense. When you get to January and February, you can forget about freshmen or sophomores because those guys have played a lot of hockey. They’re playing like veterans."
After facing Michel Larocque, Tom Noble and Sean Matile in the last five games, the Black Bears now must beat Marc Robitaille. Where’s a good sieve when you need one?
"That’s called playing in Hockey East," said Walsh. "You’re going to run into this. I put Michaud in that category the way that he’s playing now.
"It’ll probably be a low-scoring game, much like [the win over UNH] and much like our two BU games. That’s just the way it goes. You just have to capitalize on your chances."
PICK: Maine capitalizes its way to a 3-2 win.